By Kevin Koczwara
Paul Pierce doesn't look right. His teammates Deron Williams and Brook Lopez have barely played, and Jason Kidd looks like an odd choice as the team's head coach. Even so, a team with two future Hall of Famers and an all-star in Joe Johnson should be better than 9-18. The major problem for the Nets isn't Williams and Lopez missing time, but the play of Pierce, the former Boston Celtics captain and small forward.
Pierce's struggles culminated in a Nov. 30 loss to the Lakers. He was 4-for-17, with a respectable six rebounds and five assists. But that's not what he's paid to do. Pierce has the third-highest salary on the Nets because he's a scorer, a pure finisher who scored more points in a Celtics uniform than anyone but John Havlicek. In the final four minutes of the game, Pierce had two turnovers and missed three shots, but the biggest dagger was the game-tying three he missed with 2.2 seconds remaining. The shot was one he'd made hundreds of times with the Celtics, but missed badly this time.
Brooklyn acquired Pierce, along with Kevin Garnett, in an attempt to push the Nets into the upper-echelon of the NBA. No longer is Pierce carrying his teammates on the offensive end. No longer is he beautiful in the paint, finding space among hacking arms and suffocating defenses. No longer is he hitting those open threes, where his feet barely seem to lift off the ground. He's struggling just to have positive impact while on the floor.
This is not the same player who carried the Celtics legacy on his shoulders for 14 seasons. This version looks lost in the wilderness, searching for his game, that innate ability he once had to carry teams through tough times. This version of Pierce struggles to make the open three, struggles to adjust to defenses and loses his grip on the game. This version of Pierce plays like he's shooting in another gym, each shot off by a few inches.
Pierce has become a liability, like a fighter in the ring past his prime, looking for that one last break, that last knockout.
Pierce was the fulcrum of the Celtics' second Big Three, along with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, so it's odd to recall he had to wait three years just to play in his first playoff game. The Celtics had struggled to reach mediocrity after the retirement of their original Big Three -- Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish -- and the death of the blossoming superstar Reggie Lewis. Rick Pitino was supposed to be the savior, after winning a national championship with Kentucky, but he flamed out after a poor run of trades and draft selections. In 1998, Pierce slid to the Celtics as the 10th pick in the draft. Boston finally had a franchise player, but Pierce's first few seasons were far from perfect.
The Celtics were a legendary franchise that had become a punch line. Team officials and fans saw early on that Pierce had potential, yet it wasn't clear if his ability to score and take over games could keep the team from falling off the face of the earth. The front office surrounded him with subpar talent on a yearly basis, seemingly trying to lose games to get into the draft lottery, so they could select another superstar.
It eventually clicked in the 2001-02 season under Jim O'Brien, who replaced Pitino the season prior. O'Brien established what was essentially a chuck-only-threes offensive scheme, which fit with Pierce's ability to shoot from beyond the arc (he ranks fifth all-time in three-pointers) and Antoine Walker's delight in shooting from as far from the hoop as possible (he's not nearly as high on that list). The Celtics went for broke that year, trading away rookie Joe Johnson for Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers, and made a playoff push to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Pierce emerged as one of the league's best scorers and (formerly) best-kept secrets. The Celtics looked like a team that could win at any time, because Pierce was that rare NBA player who could create his own shot from nothing. He could contort, twist, spin and fade with the best. He's never been flashy. His slow-motion spins confused defenders. His shake-and-pop jumper, with little to no lift, took defenders by surprise. And he could always step into a three. He made a living there, and it was on full display in the '02 playoffs, when he averaged nearly 25 points per game.
That 2001-02 team was a pleasant surprise, though they eventually fell to Jason Kidd's Nets in the Eastern Conference Finals. Pierce was the scorer, breaking the game down to its basic elements with his slow steps and bump-and-fade jumpers. There was an everyday magic to his maneuvers. You could almost believe that his slow, labored spin and jab-step into the nothing-but-net jumper was something you could do in your driveway. But he was under-appreciated, his supporting cast always failing to live up to his level of play. At the time, it seemed like that might be the pinnacle of Pierce's career as a Celtic.
Help would not arrive until after 2006, when the Celtics dipped to their lowest point in franchise history. The Celtics lost a franchise-record 18 games in a row at one point and were selling Sebastian Telfair jerseys in their official shop. Pierce went out with an injury, and Boston slipped to the second-worst record in the NBA, guaranteeing a lottery pick, a chance to pick Kevin Durant or Greg Oden. The Celtics fared poorly with the ping-pong balls and got the fifth pick -- the worst they could get.
Celtics GM Danny Ainge made the best of it, however, turning Jeff Green into Ray Allen through trade, then transforming Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green and Telfair into Kevin Garnett. Like Pierce in Boston, Garnett had suffered through middling teams in Minnesota, as had Allen in Seattle and Milwaukee. Boston had a new Big Three now, changing the trajectory of Pierce's final years, as well as the legacy of all three players.
The Second Big Three
Like Bird before him, Pierce played like a throwback player for the Celtics, efficient and rarely flashy. Both superstars had been drafted by Boston, and each one joined a depleted Celtics franchise in need of a marquee player.
The Celtics stuck by Bird in the late stages of his career, even as injuries were ruining his game. McHale often was injured as well, and Parish showed his age quickly while the team clung to the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff race. Yet the Celtics kept the Big Three together to the end and paid a deep price for it, struggling to regroup for years after their careers ended. The franchise dropped off and fell apart, short of pieces to replenish the talent and roster.
Now, with a new Big Three, Ainge decided he wasn't going to let the same thing happen on his watch. He planned for the new Big Three to be together for five years, making a hard run at one or two championships. He got better than that, as the trio brought home an NBA title in their first year together, then continued to be title contenders even beyond five-year window. Regardless of their success, however, Ainge was always looking to deal, determined for the Celtics to move on before their stars' contracts and age caught up with them.
It was no surprise to Pierce that the trade was coming. (Allen already had taken his talents to Miami.) For Ainge and the Celtics, it was both a good deal and a respectful way to send two former superstars out into the sunset, giving them one last run at a championship. The Nets were stocked with three all-stars already, which meant diminished responsibility for the two veterans.
Crashing to the Earth
The trade to Brooklyn was supposed to be a way for Boston to begin rebuilding, and for Pierce to extend his playing career surrounded by other all-stars. It seemed like a perfect fit. Instead, it's become a survival mission, trying to keep a struggling team alive. Pierce kept the Celtics relevant for much of the 2000s, as one of the league's most efficient scorers. Now, instead of propping up a franchise by carrying subpar teammates, Pierce is the deadweight on the court.
Like Pierce, the Nets are in disarray. In a weakened Eastern conference this season, the Nets were supposed to be perhaps the only team that might challenge the Miami Heat. Instead, they're barely ahead of the hapless Knicks. The absence of Williams and Lopez hasn't helped, of course, but Pierce and Garnett haven't sparked the team like they once could. Before they were paired in Boston in 2007, they were all-stars on middling teams, trying to lead them to places they shouldn't have been. Now, they're holding their teammates back with their slow-paced play and sudden inability to hit open jumpers.
After the Nov. 24 loss to the Detroit Pistons at home, Pierce, once the face of a franchise even in its darkest times, tried to duck the media for a second time in as many weeks. All his teammates had left save Garnett, who spoke at the postgame press conference, but the reporters weren't budging. Finally, the Nets staff found Pierce and brought him out for a final word on the Nets' fifth loss in a row. He emerged out of the shower area, fully clothed. He looked dejected, at a loss, and he spoke only generically about the team's struggles.
The grin that once stretched from cheek to cheek has disappeared. Pierce hasn't been fading out, like plenty of legends do, as much as he's come crashing to earth. It's the worst season of his career, by far. And it's painful to watch.
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Kevin Koczwara is a journalist living in Worcester, Mass. He's contributed to The Classical, The Boston Globe, Narratively and other places. He tweets about sports and things @kkoczwara.